Andrew Barrett-Weiss (Executive Artistic Director, left) and Eric Sims (Managing Director, right) have been involved with the Powerhouse Theater at 3116 2nd Street since 1995. Recently, the Sailhouse Loft building was constructed on Main Street, nearly surrounding the tiny Powerhouse building. The Mirror’s Steve Stajich began a conversation over coffee by asking about the Powerhouse’s new neighbor.
Mirror: How’s it working out having this new building wrapped all around you?
ES: The people that built this project are very supportive and generous to us. It’s a very amicable relationship. That being said, yeah, we lost our view of Main Street. But one thing we’re going to do is really reach out to the community that’s going to live in this building, to get them into the theater.
ABW: History has shown that theater can and will happen anywhere. And that what you do is you adapt and you develop and you grow and you use your environment to its best potential. They had different plans for the surfaces facing [the Powerhouse] and we said, “Just give us a white wall. And we’ll project movies on it at night.” It presents a new challenge, but my hope is that we continue to present things that make people want to find us. And so far that’s worked.
Mirror: How old is your building?
ABW: The building was built in 1910 and was built by Southern California Edison as the power station for the City of Santa Monica. If you look at the circles, the holes on the top…that’s where the wires came out to power most of the Ocean Park area.
Over the years it was many things, including a recording studio, and a guy actually lived here. And then in 1982 Paul Linke, who’s legendary in the theater world in LA, turned it into a theater. And Paul did a number of shows here for many years. But it fell into disrepair in the early 90s and then when the ‘94 earthquake hit it was devastated, just a mess. And then like angels on high, we came in…[laughs]
Our friends were actors and said, “I want to act, but there’s no place to act.” So a group of us, none of us actors, decided to open a theater. We kind of happened on this by chance and started refurbishing in April of ’95 and over the years it’s gone through many different cycles.
Mirror: Your recent production Wounded graphically portrayed those injured in war. A friend who saw it told me it was a tough but rewarding experience. Is this the kind of theater you’d like to do more often?
ES: Absolutely. I think one of the things I like most about Wounded is that it focuses on the people and not the politics of the situation and it confronts the audience with the humanity of an issue about which many of them already have very strong political feelings. And yet we forget about the people who are actually dealing with what we consider to be abstract issues back home. We also like to present a more diverse array of material.
ABW: I agree with everything Eric just said, but rather than “tough but rewarding” I prefer, “challenging but rewarding.” Everything we put on stage should challenge our audience to think about their world in a different way.
ES: Another thing that’s important is that we don’t like to confront the audience just for the sake of getting in their face or offending the audience or confronting them just to gratify our own egos. We like to give people something to think about; we like to entertain them and we like to think that their experience here is a complete one.
ABW: That’s sort of the nice thing about Santa Monica. You have a community of people willing to be engaged in a debate, in a discussion and dialog. Rather than just saying, “I want to be entertained by something funny and frothy and expensive.”
Mirror: Here’s what’s tough: getting audiences. How do you do it?
ABW: Through the years we’ve developed an audience here that know what to expect when they come to the Powerhouse. And we do a lot of underground stuff. We do a lot of papering and flyer-ing and sort of quiet distribution of the message.
ES: One of the things that has served us well is that we work with companies that are connected to a university population, which certainly helps. And we’ve done a lot of work with the Internet.
Mirror: Your website talks about theater as an “educational tool.” Does that mean a lot of historical pieces?
ABW: No, I think the play comes first. To me our best shows aren’t about history, they’re about the present. Wounded could be a historical piece in ten years, but we’re doing it now because it is now.
ES: Sometimes it’s more about educating people in new ways to look at art. And new ways to look at the way theater can be presented, new ways to understand how a space like ours can be used.
Mirror: Do you focus at all on diversity?
ES: I think one of the advantages of doing as much new work as we do is that new work tends to be more diverse. When people try to force diversity on a project, it doesn’t work. I think we’ve been very fortunate in that diversity has come to us just like it’s come to California.
Mirror: So how do you decide what projects to produce?
ABW: We’re sort of interesting in that we’re a company run by producers, not by actors. So that sort of changes our focus. We often talk about how we want to present ourselves as the HBO of small theater. We want to present something that’s groundbreaking and surprising and new and smart. We also try to work with companies and create relationships with companies. We’ve been very fortunate to have long-term relationships with [various companies] like LA Theater Ensemble. Wounded is their second show with us.
ABW: In terms of how the decisions get made, a lot of it is by consensus. There’s about a half dozen people integrally involved in making the Powerhouse what it is with Eric doing most of the work, me doing most of the fake work.
Is there anything that the City might do to make life better for you?
ABW: The Santa Monica Arts Commission has been enormously supportive of us. Sadly, the funding for the arts just is what it realistically is. And I’m not the person that’s going to go to the City Council and say, “You need to take money away from the homeless effort.” But the arts are an important part of any community and the arts need funding and need support because they are integral in creating community.
Mirror: It all seems like a lot of work and I assume you guys are on, well, a diminutive salary…
ES: That’s a good word for it!
Mirror: So what personally motivates you to pursue something like this?
ABW: We got lucky being in Santa Monica because we ended up being in a community that cared about being activists and being participants. And to me theater is all about that. It’s about being an active participant in your society and in your community. In the world we live in, it’s so hard to actually make a difference. [With] this theater, every day, I feel that we did.
ES: And it’s selfish. I’ve seen a lot of bad theater in my time, so I want to make sure I see as much good theater as I can.